Episode 14: The Complex Road to Secession
A New History of the American South
Dr Edward Ayers (2018)
For me the most interesting part of this lecture was the role Ayers attributes to newspapers in provoking the Civil War by distorting and sensationalizing key events and escalating anxieties on both sides. According to Ayers, northerners fought the Civil War to preserve “the Union” (not to end slavery), and most southerners weren’t fighting to preserve slavery but for the right to found a new nation based on shared ideals. At the same time, I was really disappointed Ayers makes no mention of the British role in provoking the Civil War. This fact—once widely known to most historians—has been wiped from our history books. In my view, Ayers’ explanations for the cause of the war only makes sense with this additional information.*
Anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass argued the North should just “let the South go,” an extremely unpopular position in the North that led large mobs to attack abolitionists whenever they appeared in public.
Ayers believes it’s wrong to attribute a single causation to the Civil War as there was no one reason. He believes the volatile debate over slavery was a key catalytic force but that the war itself resulted from a cascade of small events leading to unintended consequences.
The execution of John Brown in December 1859 for the assault he led on the army arsenal at Harper’s Ferry was a major polarizing. Republicans gained support in the North after this event but lost all support in the South. Although southern Democrats demanded the party commit to allowing slavery in new western territories, they couldn’t do so without alienating their Northern base.
There were five candidates in the 1860 presidential election: Stephen Douglas, the northern Democratic candidate; John Breckinridge, the southern Democratic candidate, John Bell (former Whig), the Constitutional Union Party candidate; and Abraham Lincoln, a moderate Republican.
Lincoln won every northern state, but New Jersey, which was divided between Douglas and Lincoln. Most northern cities voted for compromise candidates (Bell or Douglas). Breckinridge won all the southern states except for the border pro-Union states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and Arkansas, which voted for Bell. Lincoln didn’t appear on the ballot in many southern states.
Despite a small margin of victory in the popular vote, Lincoln easily won the electoral college. Afraid Lincoln would appoint anti-slavery federal officials throughout the South, South Carolina (which came close to seceding during the Nullification Crisis of 1832 – see How Pressure to Expand Slavery Led to the US War on Mexico) immediately organized a statewide convention and voted to secede on December 20, 1860. On February 1 1861, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas seceded. On February 4, delegates from all seven states met to write a provisional constitution. On February 18, they elected Mississippian Jefferson Davis as president of the confederacy and Georgian Alexander Stephens* as vice-president.
In February 1861, many southerners still opposed secession because they felt it was treasonous and wanted more time for the southern sates to cooperate more fully. Opposition was strongest in the border states, who would bear the brunt of any Union military action. Virginia’s secession vote in March 1861 lost by a 2 to 1 margin.
Meanwhile in the North, free Blacks (who would have supported a war to end bondage) opposed going to war to preserve the Union. The big worry of white abolitionists was that the Confederacy would start wars in Central America and the Caribbean to allow for territorial expansion of slavery.
The second significant event the newspapers seized on was the decision by Kentucky-born Major Robert Anderson to move his army garrison from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter (both in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor), which was easier to protect against southern militias. South Carolina forces had already driven back a supply ship for Anderson’s troops, but President Buchanan let the incident pass without response.
According to Ayers, the major mistake made by both North and South was deciding the other side was bluffing and that “allies” on the other side would prevent the country from going to war.
*On April 1, 1861, 12 days prior to the first shot fired at For Sumter, Secretary of State William Seward drafted a memorandum to Lincoln seeking action against “European intervention.”
“I would at once demand explanations from France and Spain categorically. I would demand explanations from Great Britain and Russia… And if satisfactory explanations are not received from Spain and France, I would convene Congress and declare war against them.”
At the time British diplomats were working hard to bring Spain, France, and Russia into a coalition strong enough to force Lincoln into recognizing the Confederacy. Britain made no secret of her ambitions in North America. On January 3, 1860, the London Morning Post bluntly called for the restoration of British rule in America. Should North and South separate, said the Morning Post on January 3, 1860, the colonies of British North America (later combined into the Dominion of Canada) would then “hold the balance of power on the Continent.” Canada would find herself in a strong position to annex the quarreling fragments of the former USA (see The British Role in Triggering the Civil War)
With this background it becomes clear, Lincoln was fighting for much more than the preservation of the Union. He also believed he was fighting to prevent restoration of British rule over America’s northern states.
**Stephens was a states rights advocate who didn’t support secession.
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